Tag Archives: Taylor Report

The Hillsborough cover-up

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fe...

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fence onto the safety of the pitch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week over 450,00 pages of official documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 were released into the public domain, most of them for the first time. Some of the documents are illuminating, some of them are harrowing. If you have an interest in stadia, crowds or 1980’s politics and society, I would strongly reccomend having a read of some of the documents available here.

96 men, women and children were killed in crushing at the Leppings Lane End on 15 April 1989, at the FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The Taylor Report immediately after the disaster largely absolved the authorities, principally the South Yorkshire Police, of any serious culpability, and senior police officers on the day have escaped responsibility in the decades since. Crucially, in 1989 Taylor did not have the wealth of material that we have available to us now.

There are hundreds of witness statements, from survivors, police officers, medics, Kenny Dalglish, Forest supporters, local Sheffield residents and many expert witnesses. There are official letters, reports and other documents covering organisations such as 10 Downing Street, the BBC, the Crown Prosecution Service, the FA, Home Office, Liverpool Echo, Liverpool City Council, Liverpool Football Club, Nottingham Forest Football Club, Sheffield Hospitals, South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and UEFA.

However, resolute campaigning on Merseyside led to the release of official documents before the 30 year rule, and the outcome has been significant. For years there had almost been an un-written, un-spoken assumption that Hillsborough was caused by hooliganism and crowd disorder, and the Liverpool fans in particular came in for much criticism, unfair as it turned out. Of course many fans who go to football matches drink alcohol, but having a couple of pints doesn’t mean that you are incapable. And it’s always been a common problem that fans wait until the last minute to enter the stadium, but that was well known and should have been adequately planned for and managed.

Whilst the South Yorkshire Constabulary have come in for particular criticism for their approach and crowd management, one wonders how much of this goes back to something that will be harder to trace – the attitude of the Thatcher Government to working class disorder, and football supporters in particular, and the pressure that was exerted on police forces post Heysel. This surely shaped how local police forces handled football matches, and how grounds were constructed. True to form Thatcher was no fan of a working class sport such as football, and it showed. After the dramatic summer of 1985 – which after riots at Luton-Millwall, Birmingham-Leeds and at Heysel, not to mention the Bradford fire, the Prime Minister is well known to have vowed to ‘sort out’ football. Post Heysel she even lobbied UEFA to ban English teams from European competitions. Was the prologue – and the epilogue – to Hillsborough a part of this campaign?

Viewed against the wider background of the 1980’s, the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath can be placed very firmly in the context of class tensions at the time. There was significant civil unrest throughout the period,  including riots on Merseyside that would have politicised many a young working class Liverpudlian, and also and the miners strike which encompassed much of Yorkshire and involved much of South Yorkshire Police in resisting what was working class movement. It is hardly surprising that a police force that had been involved in what was essentially counter-insurgency on behalf of the government viewed football fans as a de-humanised rabble. Through all stages of the planning for the day, the dealing with the disaster and in the immediate aftermath, the Police emphasised again and again hooliganism, even when it was clear afterwards that hooliganism had not played a part. That the blood alcohol levels of those who were killed were thought relevant is telling indeed – they would have died whether that had drunk ten pints or a couple of cokes.

Witness statements suggest that most of the rank and file emergency service personnel on duty at Hillsborough performed admirably, given the nature of their training, briefing and leadership, which gave scant priority to safety and huge emphasis on hooliganism. Many police officers suffered serious psychological problems after their frantic work pulling bodies out of the crush and attempting to resucitate victims. By contrast, many of the senior commanders were paralysed, and not effectively in command and unable to make informed decisions. The match commander had minimal experience of policing football crowds. The Police Control Room was closely overlooking the Leppings Lane End, but even after the match was stopped it was still thought that a pitch invasion was underway. Consequently many police officers were deployed forming a cordon on the pitch, when they could have been assisting in the rescue.

What is even more inexcusable is that having caused the disaster by their ineptitude, senior officers in South Yorkshire Police then presided over what was a formally organised cover-up, consisting of altering large parts of police officers statements of their recollections of the day. Statements were reviewed by commanders and the force’s solicitors, and many damming and critical statements were deleted. Why did the police feel the need to cover themselves? Some sources in South Yorkshire Police referred to the force as having its ‘backs against the wall’, and this might have led to officers to wish to give themselves some breathing space. Whilst people always want to defend their corner, to go to the extent of a de-facto smear campaign against innocent victims is inexcusable. Certainly, in the 1980’s the police had been deployed by the Government to police working class unrest and disorder, and for a police force to be found guilty in such a situation would not have fitted in with the prevailing political mood regarding class tensions and football being plagued by hooliganism. Hence, there was probably not any significant pressure from above to investigate South Yorkshire Police further.

Against this background of new material, it is difficult not to look back on many of the developments of the past 23 years – not least the Taylor report, the inadequate inquests, and the lack of criminal charges – and conclude that much of the prevailing wisdom regarding Hillsborough has been undermined. The disaster was caused by inadequate and incompetent policing, combined with the perimeter fences and dividing of the Leppings Lane terrace into pens with radial fences. Factors that were supposedly contributory – drinking, late arrival for example – are still present in football grounds today. German football grounds still have terracing, and have some of the best safety records in world stadia. Whilst I know acknowledge that Taylor did not have the benefit of much of the evidence that we do have now, and was probably under much political pressure to reach certain conclusions, I remain convinced that the introduction of all-seater stadia was more about gentrifying football than ensuring that there was no repeat of Hillsborough.

As a historian, a football enthusiast and someone who keeps a close eye on access to official documents, the Hillsborough case is a landmark. It demonstrates that those in authority can no longer expect to hide behind the closure of official papers, and that they should be held accountable to the general public whom they are paid to serve and protect. It should teach people in responsible positions that they can no longer sweep problems under the carpet for them to re-emerge 30 years later when it is too late.

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The Taylor Report unpicked: the terracing debate

Fans of Borussia Dortmund support their team e...

Dortmund's Westfalen Stadion (Image via Wikipedia)

In 1989 virtually all football grounds in Britain contained a sizeable portion of terracing. In fact, terracing was so synonymous with football, that it would have been impossible, prior to 1989, to imagine football without it.

Originally earth or cinder banking, rows of railway sleepers were placed on top to give a firm footing. Some earlier stadiums had had scaffold-like stands, until a collapse at Ibrox in 1902 killed many spectators. Gradually earth was replaced by stepped concrete. The wide expanse of these concrete terraces were broken up by metal crush barriers, which prevented surges and crushing – and also gave fans something convenient to lean on! Far more fans could be packed into an expanse of terracing than the equivalent area of seating, so the advantages to the clubs was obvious – more people, bigger crowds, more gate receipts.

Terraces were particularly popular among working class fans. It became traditional for a clubs most vociferous fans to stand on the terrace behind one of the goals. Standing is pro-active, whereas sitting is passive. Some terraces were covered and some were open, but no-one was particularly bothered if they got wet – it was all part of the experience. End terraces became held with great affection by fans – the Kop at Liverpool, the Holte End at Aston Villa, the North Bank at Arsenal and the Stretford End at Manchester United for example. At Fratton Park of course we had the famous Fratton End. There was also an area of the North Stand Terrace known as the ‘boilermakers hump’, where dockyard workers would gather (back in those days going to Football was a legitimate reason for leaving the yard early!).

During the boom years immediately after the Second World War thousands would crowd onto the terraces: one had to turn up at lunchtime to get a good spot for a three O’clock kick off. Clubs even employed crowd packers to move the fans around and get as many people in as possible. Footage exists of small children being passed over the heads of the crowd down to the front to get a better view. At the time few fans travelled to away games, but those that did could travel around the ground at will, moving from one end to the other at half time.

It is strange indeed that the Taylor Report outlawed terracing, especially after Taylor had stated that terracing is ‘not intrinsincally unsafe’. Terracing did not cause Hillsborough – bad policing of terracing caused Hillsborough. Sadly, it does all support the conclusion that Taylor was given a brief by the Government to ‘sort out’ football. Part of gentrifying football was the attack on its working class roots, and the terrace and its inhabitants were the most visible target for ‘cleaning up’.

Most German Football Stadia have what are dubbed ‘safe standing’ areas. One, the Westfalenstadion at Dortmund, houses almost 30,000 behind the goal. Usually one end, or a couple of blocks in one end, are terraced. This is highly safe terracing, with wide steps, a crush barrier for every couple of rows, and a sensible capacity so fans are not jammed in. FIFA and UEFA games must be all-seater, so clubs get round this by the simple expedient of either having ‘hybrid’ terracing, or terracing that is easily converted into seating. The Olympiastadion in Munch has terracing that gives each spectator a designated spot, and there is a seat built into the crash barrier behind that can be used if necessary. Even for standing games, this is convenient for half time. The Espirit Arena in Dusseldorf has terracing, with basic seats covered with a metal panel – this panel can be easily removed by ground staff. Dusseldorf is a particularly interesting example, in that when the stadium was completed in 2004, it was completely all seater. Terracing was retro-installed in 2010, due to pressure from fans. This shows that terracing CAN be retrofitted into modern all-seater stadia.

Given the Germans penchant for efficiency and health and safety, do we really think they would have terracing if it was that unsafe? I doubt it very much. I have felt far more safe standing on terraces in Germany than I do seated in England. Terracing is much more safe than having seating, but where fans stand up throughout the game anyway. If people want to stand up, why not just have terracing anyway, but do it properly?

The terracing of 1989 and Hillsborough cannot be judged against that of 2010. The perimeter fencing, excessive capacities, barbaric pen arrangements, poor policing and stewarding, lack of turnstiles, few crush barriers, poor crowd distribution and non-existant emergency procedures are light years away from the terracing I have seen in Germany. All of the aforementioned problems can be remedied without recourse to seating.

Terracing, with a sensible capacity, plenty of crush barriers, and well managed, is perfectly safe. I doubt very much whether there is any will to re-introduce terracing in English football – not from the clubs, the football authorities or the Government. Not only because it would restore football to its working class roots, but also because clubs have spent so much converting to all-seater, few would want the additional lay-out of bringing back terracing.

Have English football fans gone soft since the introduction of all-seater stadia? All the evidence would suggest so. It would have been unthinkable, years ago, for fans to complain about noise, or the lack of legroom, or if their seats aren’t nice and comfy. It was just part of the game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, the move from standing to seated is along the lines of conscious to comatose; from supporter to consumer.

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The Taylor report unpicked: the effect on stadia

Entrance to Fratton Park football stadium, Por...

The Entrance to Fratton Park (Image via Wikipedia)

 

Since 1989 – and the Taylor report specifically – Stadium design in English football has changed beyond recognition. Far more time, thought and money has been invested in accomodating supporters than ever before.

The earliest football stadiums in England were rather basic affairs. A main grandstand might be built to seat directors and well-off patrons, as well as dressing rooms and offices. Along the front of the main stand might run a paddock for standing spectators. Another more basic stand would run the length of the pitch on the other side, and both ends were usually of uncovered terracing. In the early days this consisted of cinders with railway sleepers dumped on top, but in latter years terracing was constructed out of concrete. Such a stadium configuration is still known around the world as the ‘English style’. Typical examples are the Estadio Alfonse Henriques at Guimaraes, the Stade Felix Bolaert at Lens, or the larger Westfalenstadion at Dortmund.

Between the turn of the century and the Taylor report there was little incentive for clubs to improve conditions. Most working class supporters were happy with their lot and not worried about having gold plated crash barriers or doileys in the toilets. The only ground improvements might be to build a bigger stand to fit in more people, to extend a terrace maybe, or perhaps to put a roof over an open terrace. But in their way, the old grounds had character, in particular those that had the old style Leitch lattice work along the front of the main stand.

The 1985 fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade Stadium led to a new impetus for ground safety. 56 people were killed on the final day of the 1984-5 league season when rubbish underneath the old wooden main stand caught fire. It is believed that a match or cigarette was dropped through a hole in the wooden floorboards, and that rubbish had for many years accumulated in the void underneath. Fire swept through the stand within seconds, a horrific spectacle that was shown on live TV. Many exits were found to be sut or locked, condeming fans to their fate. The fire took hold so quickly that when the Fire Brigade arrived four minutes after the alarm was raised, nothing could be done.

The Bradford fire led to the Popplewell Inquiry and subsequent report. Safety in stadiums was improved: wooden stands were condemmed, and fire exits were added in many places. Yet the Popplewell Report did not go far enough – many grounds still had perimeter fencing to counter pitch invasions. The stand at Valley Parade did not have fencing, but if it had, hundreds would have been killed. This should have posed a salutory ‘what if’, but instead, the Government and English football – inexplicably – fudged the issue by only looking at the risk of fire, not of other scenarios such as crushing. Remember also that Heysel took place a matter of days later. The overall safety emphasis of the Taylor Report came four years – and 96 lives – too late.

Fast forward to 1989, and the Taylor report ushered in all seater-stadia for the top and second flight divisions in English football. Taylor had originally proposed to make all football stadia all-seater, but this was later scaled back by the Government. To aid building work the Government waived a proportion of VAT on Football Pools, and this was ploughed into stadium work via the Football Trust. Suddenly clubs HAD to act and were forced out of their laissez-faire malaise.

Taylor ordered that the capacity of all terraces should be instantly cut by 15%. This immediately cut into the capacity of most stadiums, in particular large grounds with big terraced ends. The Capacity of Portsmouth’s Fratton Park fell from 36,000 to 26,000 overnight. In 1949 the same ground had held 51,000 people, with exactly the same stands – such was the effect of successive legislation following first the 1985 Bradford fire and then Hillsborough.

Seats take up far more room in a stadium than a terrace. Therefore, the prospect of simply bolting seats onto an old terraced Kop was an inefficient and unlikely prospect. The bank would need re-profiling, and sightlines would not be ideal. Faced with the prospect of losing huge swathes of spectators – and income – clubs were faced with no alternative but to either radically redesign their grounds, or look at building completely new stadiums altogether. A boom in Sky TV money also made building work more feasible. Between 1991 and 1997 a total of £507.8m was spent on football stadiums – £371.3m from the clubs, and £136.5m from the Football Trust.

Yet amidst all the talk about relocation, Scarborough moved to the new Glandford Park in 1988 – the first English club to build a new stadium since 1955. Since then, many clubs have moved grounds – Sunderland, Middlesborough, Stoke, Manchester City, Wigan, Arsenal, Bolton, Hull, Reading, Derby, Southampton, Leicester, Chesterfield, Oxford, Coventry, Cardiff, Swansea, Millwall, Huddersfield and Doncaster to name but a handful.

Although plenty of money has been spent on English stadiums, in my opinion they are on the whole disappointing. Compare the cheap identikit meccano stadiums of St Marys, the Riverside, the Walkers Stadium and Pride Park with Munich’s Allianz Arena, Arnhem’s Gelredome or any of the stadiums designed for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Of new English stadiums perhaps Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium warrants a mention, as does Old Trafford – simply for the way in which it has been built to a logical all-round plan rather than having different stands constructed haphazardly on each side. But on the whole, most English football stadia are lazily designed and characterless. They could have been designed by a 5-year old on the back of a fag packet.

I suspect one of the major problems that has inhibited stadium architecture in Britain is the difficulty of long-term planning. Unlike many parts of Europe Football Clubs in England tend to own their own stadiums, unlike in Germany, for example, where many stadiums are owned by the municipal authorities. Thus if the club is strapped for cash it cannot be bothered to invest in the stadium, and even if the club has funds, it is likely to try and get away with spending as little as it can get away with. Any attempts to rebuild or relocate stadiums have to go through planning permission with the local council, which can take years or legal wrangling, consultation, and struggling with narrow-minded NIMBY’s. Ambitious and wealthy owners are sometimes able to force things through.

Lets take a look at the example of my local team, Portsmouth. 1989 found Pompey playing at the inner-city Fratton Park, hemmed in on four sides by houses and a rail goods yard. The main south stand dated from 1929, the North Stand from 1934 and the Fratton and Milton Ends were basic open terraces. The capacity fell from 36,000 in 1989 to 26,000 after Hillsborough, and then – due to a high level of terracing – just over 10,000 in 1994. For a club that was in the second tier at the time this was unacceptable.

Plans were made to move to a purpose built 22,000 seater stadium at Farlington, until the plan was scuppered by a few local residents and geese. With a new apathetic owner, the club remained at Fratton. Then Terry Venables took over and built a new all-seater Fratton End, raising the capacity to 20,000. The only problem was, that the club did not actually have the money to build the new stand, and almost went bust as a result. The rest of the ground and its facilties were essentially the same as in 1939.

When Milan Mandaric took over various plans were advanced to first build on Fratton Goods Yard, then rotate the stadium by 90 degrees (with an odd design that envisaged keeping the 1929 vintage south stand), then move to Hilsea Gasworks, King George V playing fields and a host of other sites. Lots of ideas, but no real work. Once Sacha Gaydamak took over, a plan was announced to build on reclaimed land at the Hard (this time an imaginative design by the architects behind the Allianz Arena), and when this was ruled out, a more realistic plan was made to build on Horsea Island. This plan, however, was dropped when Gaydamak lost interest (and his daddy pulled the plug on his millions), leaving Pompey right back where they started.

That said, there is something romantic about Fratton Park and its inner city location. Walking to the ground from Goldsmith Avenue is a stirring experience, that is somehow lost in the multitude of out-of-town stadiums nowadays. True the facilities are not great, but does that really matter to those of us who used to stand on the terraces? Its football, not the opera. And the old mock-Tudor house that greets visitors in Frogmore Road is still a sight to behold. There are plenty of pubs in the local area, the railway station is a ten minute walk, and the city centre is not far away. Would this matchday experience be anything like the same if the ground was housed on an industrial estate?

But if we must have new stadiums, why do they have to be soul-less constructions of mecanno and prefabricated concrete? A stadium with landmark design and with a character all of its own is more likely to engender identity, loyalty and pride. For example the ‘lifeboat’ design of the Allianz Arena, the new Wembley Arch or the old Munich Olympiastadion’s eyecatching perspex roof.

There has been no disaster in any English football ground since 1989. No lives have been lost, but what about the soul of English football, and the character of English Football Stadia?

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The Taylor Report unpicked: the shadow of hooliganism

The Leppings Lane end after the tragedy

The Leppings Lane End after the disaster (Image via Wikipedia)

The term ‘hooliganism’ originated from the Irish diaspora who populated British towns and cities in the late Nineteenth Century, and in particular young Irish lads who would run about town making a nuisance of themselves. The term ‘hooligan’ – derived from the Irish surname of Hoolihan – has since been used as an umbrella term to describe any kind of violent disorder.

The Hillsborough disaster was caused overwhelmingly by poor facilities and poor policing, which led to catastrophic overcrowding. There is no evidence of hooliganism on the Leppings Lane End that day, and no more misbehaviour than you might expect from any high-spirited football crowd at a major game. Yet inexplicably, Hooliganism features centrally in the Taylor Report. Why was this?

We need to be careful of falling into the trap of thinking that Hooliganism suddenly appeared on the terraces in the late 1970’s – there are plenty of recorded incidents of violence at football matches, going back to the turn of the century. It is a complete myth to think that before the 1970’s everyone went to football wearing a cloth cap and a rosette and had a jolly good time. It is a common fallacy to think of the ‘old days’ as some kind of halcyon age, almost like a stick to beat the present with. And crowd disasters happened way back in time – Ibrox in 1902, Wembley in 1923, and Bolton in 1946. Why was nothing done then?

Several high-profile incidents took place in 1985 which brought matters to a head. Rioting fans invaded the pitch at a televised Millwall-Luton FA Cup Quarter Final tie. On the final day of the league season a 14 year old boy was crushed to death under a collapsing wall at Birmingham, after police had charged hooligans. At the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels crowd disorder led to the deaths of Italian Fans. The Bradford City fire – although not caused by Hooliganism – also directed attention onto crowd safety. If ever there was a time for the Government to get tough on Hooliganism, it was 1985 – and few in Britain could have objected if Thatcher had taken football to task. Yet aside from lobbying UEFA to ban English clubs from European competitions, nothing happened. It could be argued that by shirking the issue in 1985, the Government made Hillsborough all the more possible.

In the interim period between 1985 and April 1989, the football authorities and clubs carried on with their laissez-faire approach to safety and facilities, while also strengthening anti-hooligan measures – most grounds had strong perimeter fencing, usually with an overhang, and some even with barbed wire or spikes on top. Terraces resembled Prisoner of War Camps more than sports venues, with their pen-like construction. These measures made disasters even more likely. Policing remained as rigid as ever, herding fans around like sheep, and with poor command and control. Hooliganism should have improved policing and crowd control, yet it seems to have remained as archaic as ever. Policing on the day of the Hillsborough disaster was pretty clueless, and there might have been an even bigger disaster if there had been crowd disorder.

Reading Taylor’s Interim Report, which dealt specifically with the causes of the disaster, time and time again senior officers from South Yorkshire Police spoke with a virtual paranoia about crowd trouble. The operational planning for the match on 15 April 1989 was solely focussed on preventing or dealing with hooliganism, with virtually no planning for crowd safety problems. This paranoia about hooliganism actually paralysed police action on the day – PC’s had had it drilled into them not to open gates, to the point where one said that he ‘expected a bollocking’ for opening a gate to allow fans to escape the crush. Even when it was clear that people were dying, some officers were more concerned about spectators being on the pitch – never mind that they were escaping a fatal crush. And even as the dead were being pulled out of the Leppings Lane End, Police reinforcements drew up a blocking line on the pitch to prevent Liverpool fans from reaching the Nottingham Forest fans at the other end of the ground. Whilst this was sensible in theory, did the Police divert too many resources?

It is quite inexplicable that having fudged the issue of safety at Football Stadiums for so long, the Government then went way over the top in 1989. Avoiding the issue had led to the deaths of 96 people. The ever-present thread of hooliganism in the Taylor report is a mystery. There is not necessarily a link that all football ground disasters are caused by hooliganism, something Taylor would have stressed if he did not have a pre-conceived agenda. Reading the Taylor Report, it is probable – at least in my opinion – that Taylor ‘lumped in’ high-spirits, hot dogs and a few beers as one and the same as hardcore hooliganism – a typical top-down, class based misconception. Kind of the same attitude that would lead a Victorian middle class investigator to irrationaly link a working man having a few beers in an inn with serial killers.

The introduction of all-seater stadia, more professional crowd control and policing has undoubtedly led to a rapid decrease in football hooliganism in Britain. It is more expensive to go to football now – cutting out many young male working class supporters – and seating is not conducive to rioting. A preponderence of CCTV makes it nigh-on impossible to commit crime and get away with it. Hooligan firms still exist, but any violence is low-key and takes place away from the stadiums, even in car parks and industrial estates.

But even though football has become safer for the majority, something has been lost along the way. All-seater stadia were an excuse to hike ticket prices. Atmosphere is non-existant compared to the old terrace days. Football crowds have got soft, complaining if seats are too hard, if somebody stands up or if there is too much noise. This has all contributed to the supporter becoming a customer – disenfranchised and exploited. Watching football is now more akin to going to the theatre.

Could hooliganism have been eradicated without the draconian measures of the Taylor report? The primary causes of football hooliganism in the 70’s and 80’s were sociological – bands of disafected working class young men, many unemployed or in low paid work, grouping together and showing their disdain for authority. More intelligent policing would have paid dividends – not just erecting bigger and stronger fences, or deploying more police horses, Herding people around and penning them in like animals, it made it all the more likely that fans would behave as such. Police should have engaged more with fans, and thinking more strategically about how to manage large crowds rather than the same old route one policing.

By its illogical obsession with hooliganism, the Taylor Report was the wrong sledgehammer, used to crack the wrong walnut. And thus the Thatcher Government gentrified what was our national, working class sport. A failure to understand the causes of and nature of football hooliganism has had a lasting effect on the game, and those who follow it. I would like to advance the argument that all-seater stadia and the gentrification of football was not the only way to clean up the game.

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The Taylor report unpicked: Class bias

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fe...

Liverpool fans climbing on to the pitch to escape the crush at Hillsborough (Image via Wikipedia)

Motivated by my recent trip to watch German football matches, and my long-term interest in Football Stadia and Football culture, I have been taking a historical look at the pivotal Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. I’m starting with a look at the class bias of the report, and following on with a look at hooliganism, the terracing debate, and stadium architecture.

On 15 April 1989 a crush at an FA Cup Semi Final at Hillsborough resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans. The subsequent report into the disaster, the Taylor Report, led to all major football stadiums being all-seater. This meant the end of terracing at football stadiums, and along with the introduction of Sky TV at around the same time, has probably done more to shape English football than any other development.

Although the report was supposed to be focussed on the Hillsborough Disaster, the recent history of football in England had a chequered past. The 1985 Bradford Fire had led to the Popplewell Report into Fire Safety at Football Grounds. In the 1970’s and 1980’s crowd disorder had culminated in English clubs being banned from European Football after the Heysel Disaster in 1985.

Yet, reading the Taylor Report, you do not have the feeling of a Lord Justice trying to investigate the causes of 96 deaths. Taylor goes much further, almost as if he has been given a tacit remit by the Thatcher Government to ‘sort out’ English football, even elements that had nothing to do with Hillsborough and didn’t need ‘sorting out’. In short, was the Taylor Report a sledgehammer to crack a walnut?

Taylors remit from the Home Secretary was as follows:

“To inquire into the events at Sheffield Wednesday Football Ground on 15 April 1989 and to make recommendations about the needs of crowd control and safety at sports events”

The ‘and’ is important. Previous inquiries had looked into the specifics of a disaster. The Hillsborough inquiry was different – Taylor was instructed by Douglas Hurd to go further than the events of 15 April 1989, and to report on the state of the game in general. The inquiry took place from 15 May to 29 June 1989, and heard evidence from 174 witnesses, as well as much written evidence. 31 sports ground were visited, including in Holland and France, and other sports grounds such as Rugby, Cricket, tennis and golf. Part I considers Hillsborough; Part II wider safety at sports grounds; Part III crowd control and dealing with Hooligans; and Part IV the proposed national membership scheme.

The Taylor report was the NINTH such report into saftey at football grounds. In 1973 the first Green Guide on safety at sports grounds was published, largely prompted by the 1970 Ibrox disaster. That Hillsborough happened, after such scrutiny, does suggest that the Government, football authorities and clubs had failed to take safety seriously enough. Measures that would have prevented Hillsborough had been proposed as early as 1924. This was due to a combination of cost, a laissez-faire attitude, and a pre-occupation with dealing with hooliganism. Taylor stated that ‘there is no point in holding inquiries or publishing guidance unless the recommendations are followed diligently’.

Taylor states that when touring grounds after Hillsborough, the inquiry encountered an attitude amongst football clubs that ‘it could not have happened here’ – this was exactly the kind of complacency that allowed disasters to happen in the first place. What is most sobering, is that Hillsborough was regarded as one of the best and safest stadiums in the country. These are all sobering and salient points.

Yet in his section ‘A Blight on Football’, Taylor belies his intentions:

“Football is our national game. We gave it to the world. But its image in our country has been much tarnished”.

There was indeed a malaise amongst football clubs before 1989. Ground improvements were minimal, as there was no pressing need to improve. In the 1980’s most clubs occupied the same grounds as they had at the turn of the century, and many stands were almost just as old. Any changes were half-hearted or not motivated by safety. In this respect, Taylor DID bring about a change in focus on the part of football clubs, and a willingness to demolish, build and improve that was not there before.

In terms of facilities, Taylor laments the poor condition of football grounds, from a spectators point of view. He describes the terraces as ‘squalid’, yet I doubt that many people who stood on the terraces in 1989 thought of it that way. Going to the football on the saturday afternoon was different to going to the Opera. In classic victorian terms of social control, Taylor states that ‘it directly lowers standards of conduct’. Unbelievably, Taylor sees fit to comment on the quality of the Burgers available to fans – ‘on sale from shoddy sheds’ – as if that really mattered. Was he comparing football to a day at the races or a night at the theatre, one wonders? The classic line, however, has to be ‘there is a prevailing stench of stewed onions’. How about if fans liked having onions in their burgers? I hardly think that stewed onions caused Hillsborough.

Taylor also mentions the lack of quality pre-match entertainment, which is pertinent. However, it is difficult to imagine what the football clubs could have organised – even nowadays, the usual pre-match and half-time entertainment is best filed under ‘cheese’ and is widely ignored by most fans. Taylor had clearly failed to grasp the attitude and background of the average football supporter.

Taylor recognised in his report that ‘football created special problems’ not to be found at other sports grounds – namely, the numbers in attendance and the atmosphere. Within two pages, football was being singled out for special treatment. Amongst the sports listed, it is noticeable that Football is predominantly the most working class sport, and the one that generates the most visible passion and support.

Conclusion

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Taylor Report was a part of wider class issues in 1980’s Britain – the report is couched in ‘top-down’ class semantics. Clearly, Taylor was no football fan. The language is evocative of a victorian philanthropist investigating inner-city slums, holding firm to pre-conceived agendas and prejudices. Not just from a personal perspective, but we cannot expect a Lord Justice – instructed by a hard-line conservative Government – to be too bothered about understanding the culture of Football, THE working class sport. Thatcher had shown a willigness to ‘take on’ football earlier in the 80’s – it is believed that pressure from Thatcher herself led to UEFA banning English clubs after Heysel. For Thatcher and her Government, was Hillsborough part of the wider class struggle, much the same as the miners strike and the Poll Tax riots? It is hard to come to any conclusion other than that Taylor and the Government used Hillsborough – and the deaths of 96 people – as cover for gentrifying football and firing another shot across the bows of ordinary working people.

 

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